At a past job, I’d estimate that at least once a week my favorite co-worker would gently place her hand on my shoulder and say, “You just can’t take anything she says personally.” She was the big bad boss, and I had no idea how to make an about-face and get on with my day whenever she offered feedback or even communicated with me about a project I was managing.
But, over time I realized that getting over it and moving on was my only chance of survival in that office. My inner mantra became “It’s not personal.” And every time I began to get rattled because of an email, or constructive criticism, or a backhanded compliment, I’d repeat the three words in my head until a deep calm overtook me.
It turns out that reacting poorly to constructive criticism is something a lot of us do, and when we regularly do it at work, it can be problematic. It’s one thing to fend off the occasional imposter syndrome that affects nearly all of us at one point or another; it can be another altogether to try and do good work when you’re dwelling on something in an unhealthy way.
Who better to offer advice on overcoming this issue than our very own career coaches? Read on for their suggestions for what you can do to stop once and for all taking everything so damn personally.
1. Embrace the Opportunity
When someone provides you with tough feedback, if a project isn’t received with the enthusiasm you expected, or your review didn’t go as planned, you should take the opportunity to get curious and view the situation as ‘good friction.’ In fact, you should seek this friction out whenever you can. Feedback, even that which you don’t agree with or didn’t invite, is where growth, development, and breakthroughs happen. Instead of taking something personally, ask yourself what you can learn from the situation. Don’t forget that diamonds are formed under pressure. Their beauty comes from friction. This can be the same for you in your position and career.
2. Remind Yourself You Don’t Have the Full Picture
You never know who just came back from a funeral. It’s morbid, but it’s also true. People’s lives are complex and multi-dimensional, and with the ever-increasing demands on our time and schedules, people are often racing from one thing to another without much time to process emotions they may be experiencing. So that dazed look someone’s giving you in a meeting? It may have nothing to do with you. Think about how often you meet with someone when you’re distracted by an unpleasant conversation with your boyfriend or an annoying one with your landlord. That quizzical, disappointed, maybe even pissed-off look you’re giving off actually has nothing to do with the person sitting across from you, right? So the next time you’re on the receiving end of one of those looks, don’t assume it’s about you. Instead, remind yourself that you never know who just came back from a funeral.
3. Pause for a Moment
One of my favorite quotes is ‘Take criticism seriously, but not personally.’ Oftentimes we have a quick, emotional reaction to feedback from colleagues, and that makes the situation worse. I would encourage you to pause for a minute and think if there’s anything you can learn from what they’re saying. If there is, use the feedback to your advantage. If not, don’t give it another thought.
4. Choose to Hear Feedback Differently
Re-frame the way you take feedback from others. Focus on helping your boss, co-worker, family, or friend (instead of just yourself), and you’ll start thriving. Develop a thick skin by always looking to the bigger picture in any difficult situation. Relentlessly ask, ‘What am I meant to learn from this? How do I use this feedback to get better and evolve as a person and professional?’ Don’t beat yourself up about mistakes (we all make them). Know that the best opportunities to grow and improve as a professional and human being often come dressed as rebuke or harsh feedback. No single misstep is deadly. If you can learn to process feedback differently and learn from it, you’ll always bounce back stronger, wiser, and more resilient.
5. Plan In-Process Time
Taking things personally is a fear response that happens when you perceive situations as threatening to your ego or identity. If you know you’ll be encountering a situation that’ll trigger your insecurities—say a high-stakes client meeting where you’re expected to perform—structure your schedule for success. Plan ‘in-process time,’ time that’s blocked off for reflection to help you avoid reactive behavior and thought traps like taking things too seriously. In the moment when you get tough feedback you can say, ‘I appreciate hearing your concerns. I’d like to take some time to collect my thoughts so that I can respond.’ Then, use your built-in process time (a walk outside is always a good idea) to calm your mind.
6. Distract Yourself
First, you need to be aware of your vulnerability to this feeling and remind yourself in a kind way—perhaps with a smile—here it goes again. And, before your emotions spins out of control, ask yourself what value there is in feeling this way? Is it meaningful in the long term? Most likely, it’ll be easy to see that it’s not. Once you consider the situation and your reaction, distract yourself by doing something that you know makes you feel good. Call or text your best friend, watch a funny YouTube video, or go buy yourself an iced coffee. If you can get away from the moment and get it off your mind, you’ll feel better and be able to get on with your day.
7. Remember—It’s Just Not About You
Understand that in most cases it’s not about you. People are busy managing competing priorities and an influx of emails. If you’ve received troubling feedback or a mind-boggling email that has you doubting yourself big-time, schedule a follow-up email or phone call. Be polite and to the point and adapt your approach to the person you’re working with. What does he have on his plate? What is her preferred method and style of communication? Find a way to get feedback that’ll help you grow, not shrink.